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Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | Will corruption issues have an impact on the Lok Sabha elections this time?

Contrary to popular perception that the Indian electorate is now tolerant of and, even ignores corruption, symbolized famously in the epithet “corruption is a global phenomenon", the issue has time and again rocked electoral fortunes of the mighty. The anti-Emergency movement of 1974 was an anti-corruption movement which started in the states of Gujarat and Bihar. Famous social scientist Ghanshyam Shah wrote in his book, Protest Movement in Two Indian States, (Ajanta Publications, 1977), that while the movement in Gujarat was an urban middle class movement, in Bihar it was an anti-corruption movement that also called for a “total revolution" or complete transformation.

Two decades later, the Bofors scandal and corruption in big defence deals eroded the political fortunes of the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government in the 1989 general election. Rajiv had a massive majority with 411 seats in a 542-member Lok Sabha from the 1984 elections held soon after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Once again, two decades later, especially since 2011, big corruption charges against the UPA-led central government in allocating 2G spectrum and coal mines rocked both Houses of Parliament. Finally, the Manmohan Singh-led alliance lost the elections even as he was widely considered to be above personal taint.

In 2013-14, the agitation by “India Against Corruption", including the fasting by Anna Hazare at the Ramlila grounds, and the demand for an ombudsman from Parliament, was the background against which tectonic political changes surfaced by 2013-14. Two of the most important were the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party, calling for an introspection of corruption at all levels, including electoral finance and street-level bureaucracy. These were a band of courageous young people, ready to protest on the streets against corruption and on people’s issues.

Following this Narendra Modi scripted a massive unprecedented victory in the 2014 general elections—he rode to power in the high tide of anti-corruption sentiments among the people. Among many, his slogan—“Na khaunga, na khane doonga"—was seen as a direct promise by the leader to the electorate. Besides, there was a promise of bringing back black money stashed in tax havens and Swiss bank accounts abroad, and considered the real scourge of the black political economy. As Modi settled down in power, there was a belief that he is keeping a personal surveillance over members of his cabinet, and that his strong government need not bow down to compulsions of alliance politics, seen as an important cause of corruption in UPA-II.

So, what has been the tangible outcome of this government on the anti-corruption front? And, is corruption going to be an important issue in the ensuing elections? Here, I may recount that the most contested first “mega" anti-corruption measure of the Modi government was that of demonetization. In a direct television address on 8 November 2016, he announced this as being of national importance—to curb black money and terrorism. Two years after demonetization, there is little clear idea what the overall gains of demonetization have been in curbing corruption. Perhaps all the cash came back into circulation. The government claims that more filing of income tax returns is an indication of exit from a “black economy". Of course, the return of black money stashed abroad has not happened. However, there are no big claims of corruption on ministers or government functionaries.

As far as the citizen is concerned, direct benefit transfer, and giving up of LPG cylinders were considered as measures that stop leakage and help reach the needy. Yet many feel that petty corruption continues unabated, a scourge for which the street level bureaucracy needs to be controlled by state governments rather than the central government. So, corruption is not a big issue in this election even as the main national parties, the BJP and the Congress, continue to raise a shrill pitch on the “chowkidar" issue.

Manisha Priyam is a senior academic and political analyst.

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